We’re 103km into the enormous 119km of the Lavaredo Ultra Trail and Mike Foote crosses the brow of a hill with Rory Bosio and they jog their way into the last aid station. They both smile. It is clear they are still suffering but somehow they are both still smiling, both still cracking jokes, and both still positive. Mike and Rory are champion ultra runners, tipped to win this incredible race but food poisoning has knocked racing on the head, now they are just fighting to finish at all.
My first time as a crew member at an Ultra Trail
I was invited by The North Face to take part in the Cortina Skyrace, an awesome 20k mountain trail run that forms part of the Lavaredo Ultra Trail weekend. With my race being on Thursday evening, I had planned to stick around for the weekend to hang out with my mum, eat ice and pizza, and see what the main event was all about.
Chatting with the TNF crew who were at the race to not just work but show their support, one of their team asked if I fancied tagging along in a support car for one of their elite athletes and help out crewing.
A little naïve to what that would involve, I immediately said ‘yes!’
It turns out crewing meant that I would be helping support their athlete for the whole race. 119km of ups and downs, hills and cols, and, it turns out, night and day. The race was to start at 11pm and we would be their, driving between aid stations, providing anything the athlete might need such as refills of food and water, a bit of moral support, or just a cheer.
Not having done this before, I was relieved that I would be with two other TNF staff who I was sure had done all of this before. We were to be tasked with supporting Mike Foote, a professional trail running from Montana, USA who, while not running obscene distances, is organising his own races back home with Runners Edge Events.
I first met Mike the morning before are a small press event TNF had put on for the bloggers and press runners to meet some of the professional athletes and chat about all things mountain running.
A little new to interviews, I started with an awesome chat with Hillary Allen, a university professor with a knack for long distance running – her relaxed and carefree demeanour belied her fierce talent as by lunchtime on Saturday she had crushed the Cortina Trail 47km route coming in a massive 31 minutes ahead of the second woman and 7th place overall.
After chatting with Hillary, a little at a loose end, I was trying to work out how these press events work when I was introduced to Mike Foote. None the wiser to who this quiet and smiley guy was, we sat down and soon started chatting away about all things mountains, training, running, and, eventually, Chamonix.We started sharing stories about the town before he started picking my brain for places to live as he and his partner are planning on spending a year here soon.
This humble and engaged man then let me rabbit on, extolling the virtues of the town, while I carried on, ignorant to the fact that he not just knew the town well but had raced their numerous times at the UTMB – with him having come almost out of nowhere in 2011 to place as first American.
With the press morning wrapping up, it was the next day that I saw Mike again, this time at the press conference for the main Lavaredo Ultra Trail race. As the top male competitors were called up onto stage it wasn’t until the final name was called, and Mike hopped up that who he was started to sink in. He wasn’t just another runner but was someone everyone was watching. And I would get a front row seat, supporting him along the route.
The race begins
Before the race kicked off, Mike, myself, Jacques and Valerio had a team meeting to talk about what sort of help Mike would be after; what drinks, what food, and when along the 119km. He could see we were all a little nervous and did his best to put us at ease saying ‘this should be fun for you guys, no matter how stressful it is for me, you guys need to take it easy’.
En route to the start line I got a chance to chat with Jacques, a digital manager at TNF and Valerio a brand manager; ‘So how many times have you supported a race?’ I asked. ‘Oh, this will be my first time’ they replied to my shock. Oh dear, I’m not sure what Mike’s let himself in for, I thought.
We weaved our way through the crowds and were treated to a prime startline view from the TNF basecamp balcony. The atmosphere was simply electric – over 1500 runners were lined up with many times more than that in support, cheering the runners on for the start. The storms of the evening had died down and now there was just a cool breeze in the air, much needed after the baking heat of our race the day before.
‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1 GOOOOOOO!’
We counted down with the announcer and the runners were off. And off they went, and went, and went. It was quite incredible to see so many people start off on this epic event.
With the last runners out the post, we headed to the car as we had about an hour until the runners past the first checkpoint. We wouldn’t be able to provide any physical support at this point but we could cheer everyone on.
En masse, the TNF support cars set off and, weaving through the mountain roads at night we parked up along with everyone else at the first checkpoint. It wasn’t long before the first people were passing through and it was at such an incredible pace – these guys were screaming along and it was only the first 18km in, how could they keep this pace up?
Cheering on each of the runners, it was great to catch a glimpse of some other friends who were running and, after the last TNF athlete had passed us, we all headed up to checkpoint 3, the first aid station.
Something isn’t right
Shortly after we arrived at the aid station, the first runners started to come in. Mike had warned us that he liked to start slow and so none of us were expecting him in the first few though by the time at least 20 people had passed, I started to worry.
Finally, Mike made his way into the light of the aid station and we could immediately see something wasn’t right.
‘I’m sorry guys, I’m not sure what’s up. I’ve never felt like this before’ Mike started and forces a smile. We quickly changed his water bottles and got him some food as he told us that, from 30 minutes in, he had been feeling nauseous and was unable to breath properly, stopping him from running at his normal pace. Mike gives us all a long look, smiles, and before we know it is off again.
I was completely struck by his worry for us – we had tried our best to reassure him and to support him but he was clearly upset that we were having to witness his suffering and he should be trying harder.
It was incredible to see but equally heartbreaking.
We were committed, we were not going anywhere without him and wouldn’t leave him out to dry just because it wasn’t going to plan!
We all looked at each other, worried. Jacques, having run a number of ultras before reassured us ‘it’s a long race, it can get better for him.’